#228 – The Story Grid Trinity

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[0:00:00.5] Tim Grahl: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid. My name is Tim Grahl. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. Before we before we jump in, I feel like, for those of you keeping score and paying attention, you know the podcast has been off for a good while. Even before that, it was on again, off again.

The issue has been that as Story Grid has changed, as it’s grown, as I’ve changed as writer and grown as a writer, the podcast we’ve – Shawn and I’ve really just struggled with, what should we do with this, because it was always about me and my writing, right? I would come on and we would talk about what I was working on, or what I was stuck on, or hated, evaluate a scene, or we’d be looking at one of my books.

The problem, though, is, I mean, it’s good for me, is that I’ve gotten better at writing. Now, I don’t really need his input on a week-to-week basis. In fact, it’s becoming where I’m writing an entire quadrant of a book, or an entire draft before I take it to Shawn and get his feedback on it. As all of you know, writing takes a while. As I’m working on these drafts, it was just hard to figure out what we should be doing on this podcast on a week-to-week basis.

I think we’ve landed on something that’s going to be really good, have a lot of legs to it in the future and involve you as well. What we’re doing is we’re changing the format over to a Q&A. Each week, we’re going to take a question, and I’m going to ask Shawn that question and then he’s going to answer the question and then that’s going to be the episode.

They’ll be a little shorter, more like 20 to 30 minutes each. Then, the first four of these episodes are on a particular topic, which I’ll talk about in a second. Then after that, we need your input, we want to hear what questions you have, that you would like Shawn to answer. You can go to storygrid.com/podcast, and there’s going to be a button there, where you can click and submit your question to be answered on the podcast.

Of course, we won’t be able to get to all of them. If you have a question you’d like to hear Shawn’s answer on, feel free to go there and submit it and that will be something that we can pull from for future episodes. Anyway, I really appreciate you. If you’re listening to this episode, that means you’re coming back on with us and listening with us. I just really appreciate your patience as we’ve floundered around and figured out what to do with this podcast.

I’m really excited about this next iteration. I feel like, now that we’ve thought of it I’m like, “Oh, this is what we should have been able to come up with from the beginning,” but somehow it took us months and months and months to figure this out. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Hopefully, it continues to be a really helpful resource for you.

In this first episode, we’re going to talk about this new thing that Shawn’s been teaching and working on and studying and using to evaluate manuscripts, called The Story Grid Trinity. I think it’s going to just be revolutionary. I know it has been already for me, so I’m excited for you to learn about it as well. Let’s jump in and get started.


[00:03:21] TG: Shawn, last year, we kept running into this issue when we are talking about how making something work, or how does a story work? Or how do we know if a story works? We kept running into this problem, where some of the things, some of the stories we were running into, some of the ones we were looking at Story Grid Publishing, seem to technically work by Story Grid genre standards, and yet, didn’t just in reading them, didn’t actually work. In this process, it forced you to take all this research you’re doing and put it into this new foundational way of looking at these things. I’d like to just start there. When we talk about a story, what is that working? When we talk about a story working, what does that mean exactly and where that led you?

[00:04:23] Shawn Coyne: Yeah, this happened, I think, around October of last year. Quickly, to just give everybody the context here, we had a submission into the publishing house. The way we’ve been presenting the means by which you can be considered at Story Grid Publishing is to prove that you have studied the Story Grid and that you have abided by the conventions and obligatory moments of your particular chosen genre.

All right, so that’s where we started and I thought that was a great place to start, because it made sense, right? As long as you abide by what the audience of a particular genre is looking for, your story should “work.” That’s what we’ve been presenting. Then, what we discovered was, there were submissions that made very, very good arguments that they were abiding by the conventions and obligatory moments that we had already spelled out in the Story Grid. Yet, when Leslie Watts and you were reviewing the material, you were just like, “This isn’t really compelling. I’m not finding myself engrossed by this story and we don’t know why. Because technically, they’ve checked all the boxes.”

Then, Leslie asked me to take a look at it. I knew immediately what the problem was. I’m like, “Oh. Well, it’s because it doesn’t have this and that and the other thing.” It came to my attention at that point, “Oh, I hadn’t really deeply considered this level beneath story.” I mean, beneath genre. Genres, as you know, are these 12 categories that we all know and well. Crime stories, thrillers, action stories, worldview maturation stories, all these subsets of stories that if you’re in a particular mood, you go and you want to read, or watch one of those stories.

Beneath that, however, there are these foundational elements that I hadn’t explicated and I hadn’t even really thought to explicate them, because I thought, “Oh, well. This is just something everybody intuitively knows.” I realized, “Well, that’s not true.” When I started to do some research to figure out if anybody else in the narrative theory universe had explored what’s underneath genre, I couldn’t find anything. It occurred to me that I needed to do some more work.

What I did is I looked at this idea of phase transition. A phase transition is when water freezes into a block of ice. If you want ice, you’ve got to put water under certain conditions and constraints in order to get it to turn into a block of ice. Essentially, what we’re trying to do at Story Grid is we’re trying to get the amorphous gas within somebody’s brain that has this really cool idea to write a story. We’re trying to encourage people to take that gasses idea, and to start to boil it down, so that it turns into, or condense it. Condense it, so it can drip down into water. That would be a really terrible first draft.

Take the stuff that’s floating up in your mind and just bang it down on a piece of paper, so that you have some liquid that you can play with. You can actually look at the liquid, and then we use the Story Grid methodology to try and start to phase transition that liquid into a solid. We use the techniques of story. One of the big tools that we use is, what kind of liquid are you making? Are you making lemonade ice, or are you making strawberry daiquiris? What kind of flavor are you going to put in that water, so that the people who are longing for a lemonade flavored ice will be able to enjoy it? That’s what the story grid methodology.

The first thing that we wanted people to understand is like, “What flavor do you want? Do you want strawberry, banana, chocolate? What?” That was a really big insight. I think, that’s why people are really attracted to the Story Grid, because we actually tell you what flavors there are. You can mix and match. Anyway, the problem was, we were talking about flavors and we were getting flavored water. We weren’t getting ice.

The phase transition of the water hadn’t reached the place of being a block of ice, which is a working – if you follow the metaphor, a block of ice would be your working draft, that is publishable, that people will recognize as a block of lemonade flavored ice. We were just getting liquid in. Leslie said, “We’re getting liquid in here.” You said that, “As long as they put the flavoring in, it would turn into ice. What’s up, Shawn?” Then I’m like, “Oh, my God. I forgot about a couple of steps that would freeze and condense the liquid into a phase transition, into our working story that’s ice.”

[00:09:42] TG: It’s interesting when you talk about this, because I think what happened was this foundational level that you’re about to talk about, was so – it was intuitive to you. Because that’s the whole thing is when you went into publishing and you thought they were going to give you this amazing bible of how to pick out great stories and make better, and it didn’t exist, and then everybody was just going on intuition.

Even with the spreadsheets and the genres, and the looking at and all these different ways, you were still relying on this base level of intuition. When you ran into me and Leslie, and we’re like, “We don’t have that intuition.” You’re like, “Oh, wait. I’m still relying on something. I need to figure out how to explain.” Because intuition’s only helpful for you, or if you can explain it, like how you’re making those decisions. Because intuition, the way I think of it is it’s making – it’s all the subconscious decisions you make based on years and years of understanding something. Then that forced you to look inward of like, “How do I make these decisions?”

[00:10:55] SC: That’s exactly right. What you’re describing is this guy named Arthur Rieber did some experiments in the 60s and 70s and they came up with this idea of implicit learning. All implicit learning is when we are exposed to patterns, recognizable patterns over and over and over again, we get very good at recognizing those patterns without really knowing why. It’s like this incredible, magical thing that homo sapiens has.

Implicit learning is recognizing and being able to point out patterns of intelligibility, the more you’re exposed to it. Because I spent 30 years in book publishing, I’ve been exposed to thousands and thousands and thousands of manuscripts. When I’m reviewing those thousands and thousands of manuscripts, this implicit pattern recognition started to be able to be deeply ingrained within me.

This is why the editors at the major publishing houses, they’re very good at what they do, because they do have this implicit skill, because they have been subjected to thousands and thousands of manuscripts, so they can pinpoint those stories that are abiding by patterns that they recognize, but they can’t explicitly explain those patterns to third parties. When you submit your manuscript to a major publishing house, to an editor, oftentimes they’ll be like, “Yeah, it just wasn’t for me. I know. I know. Sorry.” You say, “Well, why was it? What was wrong?” They go, “Ah, yeah. It just didn’t work for me.” This what we faced, right?

It was like this big splash of cold ice water on me, because I thought, “Oh, look. I solved this problem. I told people what’s required to create a working manuscript. Here, it’s actually not going to fly.” You can do one of two things at that moment in your life, is you can either go, “I’m just going to double down on what I’ve already said for a million years.” I’ll just say, “Well, you just don’t get it. I know better than you, and you haven’t done it the right way.”

Or you can look at yourself and say, “Oh, there’s something that I know, that I need to translate into language that other people can explicitly learn. I need to move the implicit knowledge that I have into the explicit realm, so that Tim Grahl and Leslie Watts can go, “Oh, I can take that hammer and that screwdriver and those tools, those explicit tools, and I can learn that implicit pattern recognition skill. Then if we’re really good at this, we can explain it not only to the publisher and the editor-in-chief, we can explain it to our Story Grid people, so that they can really know what to do before they submit.” Here’s the goal state. This is my fantasy. In five years, every manuscript that comes into Story Grid is ready to publish. That’s crazy, right?

[00:14:07] TG: That’d be great.

[00:14:09] SC: If we do our job properly and people are really intently working through their craft and leveling up their understanding of story and really putting themselves through the paces and not quitting and working with third-party editors to make their stuff better, by the time we get to submission, the phase transition, it’s going to be lemonade ice all the time. We’re going to have strawberry daiquiris. We’re going to have lemonade ice – we’re going to have chocolate ice cream, we’re going to have all kinds of great solid works of art, that we can then market and show the world and say, “Hey, we’re the Willy Wonka of story. We’re creating brand-new, beautiful products all the time. It’s an art, but we love it and the things that are coming in are coming in with this great phase transition.”

Here’s the question. Well, what’s that secret sauce? What is that thing underneath genre that is Actually the thing that will phase transition, gasses into liquid, liquid into solid, and then with a lot of great flavoring that nobody has tasted before? That’s the question. That’s a very hairy question to answer, because you’re basically saying, what are the keys to creating excitement, intrigue and catharsis? Because that’s what you want to generate with your audience. You want to excite them. You want to make them want to read the next page, read the next sentence, read the next paragraph. That’s the first thing you got to do.

You got to make sure they read the book. It’s got to be exciting. Then the second thing, it’s got to be intriguing. What is intriguing me? It just means that the audience, they have to wonder what’s going to happen next. If they know the ending of the story before they start, then it’s not going to be very intriguing and there might be a lot of car chases and stuff in your action and it might be exciting. If they know where it’s going and they’ve seen the movie before and they’ve read this novel before in a different form, they’re just going to be like, “This is cool, but I got other things I have to do.”

All right, so we need it to be exciting, we needed to be intriguing. The last thing is catharsis. Now, this is the really difficult part. What catharsis is, it was a term invented by Aristotle. It’s a really cool term, because it’s extraordinarily powerful. What catharsis means is that after you have reached a pivotal moment in a story, it’s almost as if inside of yourself, from your tippy toes, all the way to the top of your head, you experience almost a ray of enlightenment of truth, deep truth that flushes away all of your nervousness and unsettledness, and not knowing what to do next about your own life. You say to yourself, “Oh, my gosh. That’s what happens to me. That’s exactly what I’ve experienced.”

It’s extraordinary, because these are crazy, make-them-up avatars that are coming from somebody who’s just having these thought bubbles in their head. Then, it gives this deep cathartic experience to an audience. It’s almost as if, it actually is the creator of the story has directly mind-melded with a member of their audience, so that the audience understands exactly the intention of the storyteller. The storyteller starts out with an idea of telling a story that they hope will change somebody’s life.

Then at the end, if you reach catharsis, the audience understands exactly what the storyteller was intending to deliver. It’s incredible. You got those three levels, right? It’s got to be exciting, it’s got to be intriguing and it’s got to provide some catharsis. Now, that’s a really high bar. That’s a bar that we call masterwork.

We only have a limited amount of time on the planet here. We at Story Grid are going to shoot for the stars. We’re going to shoot for masterwork, and so we want people to understand those three levels and shoot for it. Because if you shoot for it and you miss, then you might not hit the top of the pyramid, but you’re not going to be at the bottom. If you never ever shoot for the top, you’re just going to get maybe a little bit better, then, okay, cool. We only have a limited amount of time to shoot for that.

We always say to people, if you follow our methodology and you go through this trinity of forms that I’m – I call it a trinity. The more research that I’ve done and the more philosophical and scientific research that I’ve done, it’s just remarkable, the concept of the trinity is a repeating pattern of intelligibility across multiple domains of experience. It only makes sense to me that a story has a trinity within it, just as our reality as trinities within it.

That’s how we’ve gotten to this new foundational level. It’s these super, super, duper elements that make up that next level of genre. The flavoring is important, but you want to build the right liquid and transform it with the flavoring later on. It’s a step by step process. I have a very clear stage of which part of the trinity to tackle first, which second and which third, which I think is going to be extraordinarily helpful to people.

[00:20:17] TG: Well, so just give me a quick introduction. What are those three levels that are in the trinity? Then we can dig into them in future episodes.

[00:20:26] SC: Sure. Okay. The other thing that I’ve discovered is, it’s really important to give somebody a vision. To give them a metaphor, so that they can clearly stick it in their brain and then pull out that photo, and then the photo, it’s like that phrase, ‘a picture’s worth a thousand words’. This is the way I’m constructing this trinity, is to really use it as a metaphor for vision. There are three levels. There’s on the surface, and this is just the motion of the story, the action, the kinesis, the kinetic movement of the objects and subjects in the story. It’s exactly the literal movement of people and things in the story. For example, at the beginning of The Hobbit, you have a guy knocking at a door, right?

[00:21:21] TG: Yeah. This is what you would see if you were watching it happen, but had no context and the volume’s turned all the way down.

[00:21:29] SC: That’s exactly right. That would be on the surface. It’s the equivalent of sitting in a cafe, having a cup of coffee, and just chilling out and looking through the glass and seeing the park in front of you and watching the people move around the park. You see the little girl kicking the soccer ball to her mom, and then the mom kicking it back. Then over here, there’s a family that’s starting to create a cookout and they’re putting the charcoal briquettes in the fireplace, and then over here, there’s a softball game going on. There’s all this beautiful movement of motion, of people and objects moving through time and space. It’s mesmerizing.

I mean, the entire European culture is about sitting in cafes and watching people walk by. That’s for a very good reason, because it’s fascinating. It’s watching the motion and the beauty of things moving through time and space is awesome. That’s on the surface. When we’re a storyteller, we want to make that stuff interesting. We don’t just want to see the girl kicking the ball to her mom over and over again, because then we get bored, right?

We want our vision to be our attention to move away from that scene and move over to the family that’s starting their cookout. Then here comes somebody’s up in their car, and they’re helping grandma out of the backseat, and she’s got a cane and everybody’s smiling and she’s excited to be out for the day. We can start filling in the motion on the surface, just in our imaginations, which is awesome. All right, so that’s primary. If you don’t make that stuff interesting, nobody’s going to care about the next two.

[00:23:19] TG: Right. Yeah.

[00:23:20] SC: All right. When I said, I’ll give you a series of steps, step number one, make the motion interesting. Okay. Step number two is what I call above the surface. What above the surface is is pretty cool, because what it is, is that you have these objects and subjects in the spatial dimension in time, and then you as the storyteller get to choose, right? You get to go and say, “Which one of these people is going to change? Which one of them in my tapestry of my diorama of my setting, which one of them is going to change the way that they behaved?”

Let’s say, when the little girl is kicking the soccer ball to the mom, the mom gets frustrated, because the little girl’s not very good. She keeps having to chase the ball. Then, the mom starts screaming at the little girl to do it the right way. Why aren’t you doing it the right way? I taught you something different. Now we’ve got something interesting. Now, we’ve got an above the surface dimension to the story, because it’s intriguing. Now, why would the mother yell at a little girl on a Sunday afternoon in the park, just because she didn’t kick the soccer ball the right way? That’s intriguing, isn’t it?

You as the storyteller, get to save yourself. How can I change that mom? How can I get the reader, or the audience, the person looking through the glass to look at that mom and follow her as she goes through a process of literally changing her mind? That’s above the surface. Now, we’ve got this really interesting thing about how do we change the motions that we enact in the literal space and time of life. That’s a extraordinarily complex dimension. It’s fascinating. It’s intriguing to all of u, because sometimes we don’t even know why we’re doing what we’re doing. Maybe that mom doesn’t either.

Maybe if somebody asked her, “Why are you yelling at your daughter?” She could say, “You know what, if you had spent 27 hours working with her to kick the ball properly, I think you would be upset, too.” She wouldn’t know that there are deeper levels, unconscious things that are driving her behavior. The above the surface is all about the intrigue of why do people do the things that they do? How can they change the things that they do that aren’t so good anymore?

Can they level up and to get more attuned with the beauty of the natural world, and to actually enjoy that kicking the soccer ball randomly with her daughter on a Sunday afternoon? Wouldn’t that be cool if you could tell a story about how somebody could transform, transcend themselves? That’s above the surface. That’s the next level.

First, we got to make things interesting in terms of motion, and then we need to deal with the energy within the minds of the players that gets them to enact things. That’s the second level. It’s above the surface. It’s everything above the neck. It can be anthropomorphic, too. You can have dogs, or it can be a cartoon.

Yeah. All right, so that’s the second level. Let me get to the third level. The third level is really cool, because the third level is beyond the surface. Now, remember, I was talking about implicit pattern recognition earlier about Arthur Rieber and I said, it was my job to teach people explicitly about what I know implicitly. That’s a big, big problem.

All right, so beyond the surface is about that very thing. How is it that we recognize patterns of things that occur, patterns of behavior through time? The beyond the surface is what Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell were talking about. They were saying, “Well, there is this archetypical behaviors that have been going on forever.”

Maybe the mom is enacting her understanding of what it means to be a mentor. She’s enacting a pattern of behavior that let’s say, 2,000 years ago, in Athens, Greece, or say, in India, there’s another park and there’s another mom and another little girl, and that little girl is kicking a coconut, or whatever, right? That’s the beauty of beyond the surface, is that the things that we are dealing with in the present day are abstractly identical to the things that people were dealing with thousands of years ago.

Yes, we have cellphones and we have all these other technological advances. Thematically, we are all children of our mothers and our fathers. We all have to enact these archetypical things throughout our lives, so that we can make sense of it. The beyond the surface is this thing that really can connect somebody. I’m not a big soccer fan. I don’t really relate to somebody kicking a soccer ball on Sunday. When there is this beyond the surface component to the story, it doesn’t matter. I’ll watch the soccer.

Ted Lasso, that’s a great show, right? I’m not a big fan of soccer. It has nothing to do with soccer. When you watch that show, you know in your heart like, “Oh, isn’t this cool? That’s interesting, the whole soccer thing. It’s interesting to see where the locker room is and how they kick the ball and stuff, but it’s not really about that.” That’s the beyond the surface stuff. We’ve got on the surface, above the surface and beyond the surface. When you understand those three things, it’s going to increase the probability that you’re going to phase transition from a gasses ideas to liquid sort of blah, that it doesn’t make sense yet, to a really beautiful lemonade crystal. That makes a solid lemonade Italian ice on a hot Sunday afternoon.


[00:30:30] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe.

Also, make sure you go to storygrid.com/books to see all of the other titles we have released through Story Grid Publishing. If you like to check out the show notes for this episode, or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple podcasts and leaving a rating and review.

Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.


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Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
Paperback: $19.99
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Audiobook: $14.99
Author Tim Grahl


Madeline Slovenz says:

As interesting as it is to get into Sean’s work on the Trinity, I feel like listeners have been left high and dry after being introduced to the HJ2.0 and taken trough an introduction of Quadrants 1 and 2. I’m probably not alone feeling like we’ve waited for the ending payoff on that topic. Any chance we will be brought along through Quadrants 3 and 4 so there will be some closure on the intro to HJ2.0? Fingers Crossed.

Ronald DeMitchell says:

How do hero teams figure into the Story Grid Trinity and the Heroic Journey 2.0? I have found myself liking stories with hero teams these days.


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